Sunday, 17 March 2013

Versailles, where the Sun and the Moon rose together

Versailles is the most incredible monument to one man's ego. It is so vast, so immense, that I hardly know where to begin.

Let's start with a little history. Louis XIV reigned in France from 1661 to his death in 1715. He single-handedly neutralised the power of the old families and rebranded himself as the Sun-King, identifying himself with Apollo, the Roman god of the Sun. He revolutionised the law, the army, and the power of the crown.

And he did a lot of this with Versailles.

Approaching the gates of Versailles is intimidating even today. It is hard to imagine how it must have felt to courtiers who knew that their lives and their livelihoods were in the palm of the hand of the man who lived at its centre.

Gold leaf covers spikes, a potent metaphor for Louis' court. Smiles were false and the only thing that counted was appearance. Being seen, and being seen to be seen, were far more important than being clever or even useful.

Let me give you an example. Louis expected, upon waking, to be surrounded by courtiers who hoped for some favour from him. This was not an entirely new system; instead, it harked back to Roman times, where it was necessary for people to visit their patronus, a man of greater wealth or social stature, in the morning. This was called salutatio, and served to remind the inferior of the power of their patronus. Louis, who saw Rome as the pinnacle of civilisation, reinstated this, and so expected his ministers and courtiers to greet him when he woke up. This was known as lever, the rising ceremony. It was split into two parts, but that's a little heavy for this light little blog. In any case, once the King put in place this ceremony, it became fashionable to copy it, and consequently lower level courtiers would need to rise at a ferociously early hour in order to rush to the lever of their superiors who, in turn, would then hurry off to the lever of their superiors. Consequently Louis' lever was towards noon, and he would actually get in a good couple of hours of hunting before re-retiring to bed.

There's your little history lesson over. Onwards to Versailles!

I was at Versailles with Mary who, apparently undaunted by last week's meeting, had agreed to keep me company as I wandered around the grand château. My entry was free; hers, regretfully, was expensive - citizens of the European Union under the age of 26 get in gratis. Americans, sadly, do not, regardless of age. Entering, we followed the signs around the building. A sign two metres in expressly forbade the use of cameras and videocameras. Despite the sign being in three different languages many of our fellow tourists ignored it completely; I, being British, could not bring myself to do so. Consequently I have no pictures of the inside, which is an incredible shame, because it's glorious.

The tour leads you through several rooms, all of which have breathtaking paintings on the ceilings. Mars, Diana and Hercules all tower above you as you move from room to room, and it wasn't long before Mary and I felt our necks stiffening up as we did our best to drink in every image. I know it would take up too much space, but there's a lot to be said for putting long benches in these rooms. People could lie back and stare up and thus better appreciate the incredible artwork.

The opulence of the rooms doesn't stop at the ceilings, however. The walls are clad in marble and finished in gold. At every step you are reminded that you are in the home of a near deity. At its centre, like a spider in a web, is the bedroom of the King. It is magnificent in its opulence. Gold thread, gold leaf, silk - all adorn every feasible surface and ensure that everyone in the room is aware of who has the power.

The tour was over far too quickly and Mary and I escaped to the grounds, which even in overcast weather were beautiful. They are free to enter (free for all, without concern for the country in which you were born), and we strolled together around the enormous cruciform lake which is the centerpiece of Versailles' gardens. We were lapped several times by eager joggers, bikers, and one chap on what I can only accurately describe as a cross-trainer on wheels. We took a more leisurely pace, discussing Anglo-American differences and future plans and ideas. We stopped off for lunch at a little eaterie; Mary had a sandwich and I had a roast chicken. I confess, I am something of a glutton. Some people look at vices and see sin. I see a list of achievements waiting to be unlocked.

We were halfway through when a family of seven or so Texans sat down next to us, clearly unsettled by the prospect of being sat next to people they didn't know. This is a peculiarity of the continent that Brits and, apparently, Americans are not used to. It can be summed up very simply as: if you fit, you sit. You can be friendly or you can ignore your neighbour, but that's just the way it is.

In any event, eavesdropping on their conversation caused me to have to bite my lip a couple of times while Mary cringed just a little as they remarked on the differences between the States and Europe. It would be easy to mock, but the fact that they've made the journey is greatly reassuring - I read recently that only 3.5% of Americans will ever travel overseas on vacation. So anyone who leaves that country and tries to get some of the ancient culture they lack is a hero to me.

All the same, it shouldn't be a surprise that Macdonald's is different here.

The long walk brought us to the top of the cross. To give you an idea of the sheer size of this lake, Versailles is the central building in this photo. The dark blobs in the foreground are 4-man boats.


On the stroll back I attempted to explain cricket to Mary, a task of mammoth proportions because cricket is not the simplest thing to explain. We've made a deal, though - if I go to Chicago she'll take me to a baseball game and she, in return, will accompany me to a cricket match in England.

I cannot wait.

Today, in a nutshell, has been recovery. I lay around until 10 feeling stiff; apparently I am now old and cannot walk a few miles without needing to rest my bones for a day. Orange juice and a baked potato have restored my vigour, however, and I am now off to teach. If you'd like to see a few more pictures from Versailles, including a few shots from the garden, then just click here.

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